Monthly Archives: April 2018

The Cult of Remembrance

Eugène Atget

Took photos of deserted Paris streets. Photos look like crime scenes. The purpose of them is to establish evidence. They demand a specific kind of reception. Free-floating contemplation is not appropriate. They unsettle the viewer, she feels challenged to find a particular way to approach them.

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Arendt and Action


Arendt’s account of the human condition reminds us that human beings are creatures who act in the sense of starting things and setting off trains of events. This is something we go on doing whether we understand the implications or not, with the result that both the human world and the earth itself have been devastated by our self-inflicted catastrophes

Arendt argues that faith and hope in human affairs come from the fact that new people are continually coming into the world, each of them unique, each capable of new initiatives that may interrupt or divert the chains of events set in motion by previous actions. She speaks of action as “the one miracle-working faculty of man” (p. 246), pointing out that in human affairs it is actually quite reasonable to expect the unexpected, and that new beginnings cannot be ruled out even when society seems locked in stagnation or set on an inexorable course.

For the other side of that miraculous unpredictability of action is lack of control over its effects. Action sets things in motion, and one cannot foresee even the effects of one’s own initiatives, let alone control what happens when they are entangled with other people’s initiatives in the public arena.

Action is therefore deeply frustrating, for its results can turn out to be quite different from what the actor intended.


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Eternal Themes of Power, Greed & Fate

Many stories in the Histories are case studies in the nature of power. The reasons are always similar: power leads to excess. Blindness to the limitations of human action incurs the downfall of mighty kings like Croesus, Cambyses and Xerxes. The condition they suffer from – the Greek word is hubris – is depressingly modern and familiar.

In the world of Herodotus, any excess is ultimately corrected: what goes up must come down. This applies to individuals, to empires and to peoples.

The traditional gods of the ancient Greek pantheon are still very much alive in the Histories. Yet in contrast to Homeric poetry, they no longer intervene directly in the world. They have receded to a transcendental distance from which they oversee and steer the workings of the world.

The Persian Wars nearly ended the Greek experiment. Divided among themselves, not really prepared for a large war, and with many Greeks siding with the enemy, the eventual defeat of the Persian invaders by a handful of scrappy city states was one of the great victories in military history. It would define how the Greeks, particularly Athens and Sparta, saw each other and the outside world. The “histories”of Herodotus give a good sense of how they saw both the Persians and war itself.

The Persians saw tyranny as the natural state of things and underestimated the cohesion that could come from democracy. 

Xerxes dithers on responding to the humiliating defeat. Herodotus, characteristically, attributes his decision to attack the Greeks to goading by lousy subalterns and a series of prophetic dreams, misinterpreted. It is interesting that one of his best warriors and smartest advisors is a woman, and Herodotus lacks the misogyny or patronizing attitude we might expect.


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Suzanne Valadon wore a corsage of carrots and fed her Catholic cats caviar on Fridays.

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Definitions: Trauma

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 8.27.41 PMTrauma comes from the Greek word traumat, meaning wound. Trauma comes in many different forms. You don’t have to be a Vietnam Vet to experience it. You could have a loved one die on you suddenly, you could be injured in an accident, you could be exposed to verbal abuse, neglect, or physical abuse. Abandonment qualifies, as do natural disasters, debilitating injuries, and all forms of domestic violence.

When you become traumatized, you wake up to the dangers in the world. You realize that at any moment those that you love can be struck down by senseless, random events. In a heartbeat, your entire life can change, the people you trust can turn on a dime, and betray you. Nothing is safe. It’s a bit like the Matrix, when you take the red pill and wake to the painful reality of the world.

A traumatized person lives outside the normal experience of living. Always on high alert. Unable to turn it off. This is the legacy of trauma. Not only does it awaken us to our deepest fears, but it also destroys the normal notion of how we experience ‘time’ on a conscious level. A fancy word for this is phenomenology, and it is something poets, monks, and philosophers have spent centuries pondering. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, victims of trauma become stuck at the still point of the turning world; The still point between time past and time future.

The simplest way to illustrate this is as follows. We are born and we die. In between these two events, we live a life that stretches in a long, continuous line that we call ‘time’. But trauma breaks that line. It destroys everything you knew of time, in terms of it being concrete and stable, and blows all of that apart. The trauma becomes magnified, or freeze-framed into an ongoing, eternal present. Just like the loop in a vinyl record that skips, the trauma becomes stuck in its own time. Your daily time line, the one stretching between birth and death, falls back into place, but now it has weaknesses in its foundation, hidden like trapdoors. Any trigger, that reminds you of the trauma (however abstract it may be), can send you shooting back in time to the freeze-framed moment of devastation. Your nice, neat time line is suddenly gone, collapsing under the weight of your memory. Past becomes present, and present becomes past, and the future loses all meaning. In fact, there is no future, there is nothing but incompleteness. You return back to your time line each time a little more weary. You begin to tread carefully, never sure when you are going to fall through. This is the nature of life with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.


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